If you ask congressional conservatives about their plan to revive the economy, you’re not likely to get a very detailed answer, since they tend to doubt that the government is the solution—to a bad economy or anything else. But the neoliberal philosopher king of Capitol Hill, Representative Paul Ryan, has rolled out a plan to reduce government and reduce poverty simultaneously. He calls it “Expanding Opportunity in America”—and he plans to do it by shrinking what’s left of the welfare state.
Under the banner of “flexibility for accountability,” Ryan presents an agenda that reflects “deregulation for deprivation,” systematically reducing public assistance in hopes of “incentivizing” people to be somehow less poor. New research shows us that the plan would deepen the damage already inflicted by eighteen years of reforming welfare out of existence.
The centerpiece of Ryan’s latest budget plan is the so-called “opportunity grant,” which consolidates eleven federal programs into a single chunk of funding, including food stamps, subsidized childcare, and housing funds. This ultimately forces welfare admnistrations to parcel out money for, say, rehabilitation programs for people with disabilities, senior centers and subsidized daycare for toddlers, all from the same capped fiscal pot, which in turn dilutes overall funding streams and undercuts resources for directly assisting the poor.
Progressive critics say that this formula has been tried before, with the 1996 welfare reform law that gutted key public assistance programs. Those measures capped benefits and lumped programs into a single pot of funding, with disastrous effects on the poor.
Ryan’s “opportunity grant,” as Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss reported earlier, would impose the same austerity two-step of capping and consolidating. Following the “accountability” framework of the current welfare laws, Ryan’s “opportunity” program would impose strict requirements on welfare recipients, which would humiliatingly micromanage their household spending work-related activites.
The program also promotes the Earned Income Tax Credit, which subsidizes incomes through income tax refunds, as an alternative to direct cash benefits, suggesting that tax breaks are a form of assistance superior to cash payments.
At the heart of Ryan’s plan is an all-out assault on food stamps. Food stamps are a favorite target for small-government conservatives because (1) they run the way a welfare program should—benefits expand based on people’s need, not the political whims of Capitol Hill; and (2) even though benefits are extremely lean, only a few dollars per day, food subsidies are extremely effective at reducing poverty—so it’s the kind of welfare libertarians hate.
The restructuring proposed in the Ryan Plan, according to an analysis by the CBPP, would directly target crucial (and fragile) pillars of the welfare state: because about 80 percent of the Opportunity Grant goes toward food stamps and housing assistance, “the cuts would almost certainly reduce families’ access to these programs, which are effective at reducing poverty—particularly deep poverty.”